Eagles in Massachusetts

Bald eagle © Joseph Cavanaugh
© Joseph Cavanaugh

Prior to 1989, the last presumed nesting of this species in Massachusetts took place at the beginning of the century. While considered a rare breeder in the Commonwealth, the eagle was once a relatively abundant species across North America. Yet, it suffered an alarming decline in the 1950s and 1960s with the use of DDT. The pesticide had a catastrophic effect on the eagles’ ability to produce the calcium needed to coat their eggs. As a result, the eggs were laid with soft shells, or no shells at all, and were crushed by the weight of the brooding parent.

In 1972, the Federal government banned the use of DDT in this country, and the Bald Eagle population in the United States has now recovered to the point where it has been changed from “endangered” to “threatened” status.

Reintroducing Eagles

In 1982, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife teamed with Mass Audubon to launch a project to restore the bald eagle as a breeding bird in the Commonwealth.In the spring of that year, two eagle nestlings were brought from Michigan and raised in a specially constructed nest platform on a remote peninsula in Quabbin Reservoir.

Caretakers used eagle “puppets” to feed the chicks so that the birds would imprint on their own species, rather than on humans. The hope was that these young birds would remain, or return to breed in the area in which they were reared. The birds were successfully introduced into the wild. Between 1982 and 1988 (the year the program ended), 41 eagle chicks were brought from Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Michigan, to be raised and released at Quabbin Reservoir.

Results

Bald eagles take four or five years to reach breeding maturity, and in 1989, two pairs of eagles successfully reared young at Quabbin. The parents included “Ross,” the first eagle raised at Quabbin in 1982. In the years that followed, the number of nesting eagles increased and spread across the state. During the 2012 breeding season  there were 38 territorial Bald Eagle pairs, of those, 27 pairs incubated eggs, producing a total of 31 chicks who survived the nestling stage and fledged. Once the young eagles are able to find food on their own (usually in late summer), the parents go their separate ways.

Experts have since confirmed nests at Quabbin Reservoir, along the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers, and on lakes in Plymouth County. In 2012, eagles nested at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton, the first confirmed eagle nest at a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary. Massachusetts-born eagles have also been documented as nesting in Connecticut and New York, adding to the recovery of the species in the northeast.

For the most recent data on bald eagles in Massachusetts, check out the results from the Breeding Bird Atlas 2 and State of the Birds.